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Plot Your Loop: Tips for Researching Your Own Routes

When you're a hiker, a loop is any trail that takes you forward...all the way back to the beginning. Find a few starter loop hikes, and learn to construct your own.
Everyone loves a loop, perhaps because every step feels like it's taking you forward to new discoveries. (Plus, they're good for the land).
From Maple Pass to the Wonderland Trail, Washington has some stunning and well-known trail loops. Check out a few of our favorites below, and use our tips begin constructing your own.

Pick the experience you're after

  • Small, medium or large?

If you're after a short loop, you may not have to look any farther than our Hiking Guide or the interpretive trails found in many corners of the state. From 1-3 miles, these family-friendly loops are a great way to explore in a circle. We also love these little loops for getting out while recovering from an injury or illness.

For medium or larger hikes, you may need to work in more than one trail to make your loop. That's where your research comes in.

  • Day hike, overnight, or mega-miles?

Whether a day hike means five miles or 15 miles to you, there are plenty of loops to enjoy. As soon as you begin adding up more days or miles, your options grow exponentially. The first step is simply deciding whether you're looking for a casual stroll, a challenging day practicing navigation on a web of trails (like on Mount Spokane or in the Issaquah Alps) or embarking on a 100-mile backpacking adventure.

map loop planning
Spread out with maps, some good references and begin to piece together trip ideas. Photo by Loren Drummond.

Do your research and connect the dots

One of the best way to get ideas is to follow in the footsteps of others. Look for trip reports listing more than one trail, follow the adventures of big-miles backpackers like Sir-Hikes-a-Lot or ultra trail runners, like Luke Distelhorst and Ben Mayberry, who last month circumnavigated Glacier Peak on a long series of trails.

  • Maps, maps and more maps

You already know that maps are one of the Ten Essentials. But maps are also the key to creating your own adventures. There is nothing quite like fixing yourself a cup of coffee, spreading your maps out across the kitchen table, and beginning to dream big.

Sometimes it's easier to start with a larger scale map (the kind that is either too heavy or not detailed enough to take hiking), and zero in from there. If you're on a budget, try choose an area before you invest in a map set for your trip. Drop in at a local ranger station, browse a map store, outdoor retailer or head to your local library. Even a $20 topographic road atlas will list many hiking trails, and be a great idea-generator.

If you're lucky, you might even have a hiker-friendly spot like Seattle's Noble Fir, where you can drink a pint while you check out their set of maps.

In the planning stages of your trip, you can also employ some of the great digital map resources out there to rough out possible routes. From Google Earth to the National Park wilderness planning PDFs, there are dozens of free online resources that you can use to plot your routes. It's worth saying that even if you're devoted to GPS for your on-trail maps, it's important to take along paper maps as backup.

  • Make a list of the trails, and check conditions and permits

This part can take a little doing, especially on larger loops linking up more than two trails. Make a list of all of the trail names and numbers in your loop, and begin checking each segment for their conditions.

Begin, of course, with trip reports here on WTA and across other sources. Also be sure to check the official conditions reports from land management agencies (if you can't get current information online, then call).

As you check each segment, make notes about:

  • trail conditions
  • potential water sources and camps
  • special permits you'll need (like for the Wonderland Trail)
  • any tough sections of trail that might take more time
  • side trips you may want to work in, if you're running ahead of schedule
  • potential bail-out trails

Naches Loop by Kyle Lewis.jpgNaches Loop is a popular route near Mount Rainier. Photo by Kyle Lewis.

  • Build in a bail out plan

Mark the turnaround spot where you will pause and talk. On any loop, you have the perpetual decision: continue forward, or go back the way you came. Plan to check in with your group during your hike for assessments. Ask yourself how you (and everyone in your group) is feeling. How has the trail been? Is the easiest part ahead of you, or will you be painted into a corner if trail conditions go bad?

Build in a bail out route. As you map your route, it's never a bad idea to plan some bail out options if the trail conditions, weather, wildfire or your feet go bad on you.

All trail miles are not equal. If you know you're walking into a section where the trail may be terrible then build in lots of extra time. It's always better to have extra time relaxing at the trailhead than it is to race against darkness, running out of food or the chance of a missed rendezvous.

  • Break free from geometry: lollipops, daisy-chains and lopsided loops

When you were learning basic geometry in elementary school, your math teacher probably didn't have your future hiking adventures in mind. As a hiker, you need to look beyond the basic circle shape of a loop, and begin to see all kinds of shapes as possible mutant loops in the twists and turns on trail maps. Because when you're a hiker, a loop is any trail that takes you forward ... all the way back to the beginning.

Lollipop loops are routes that start and end on the same stretch of trail, but include a loop off of the main stem of your route. Want to add more days to a trip? Look for daisy chains, where multiple little loops hang off of a main stem trail.

Can't quite make your loop connect? Don't disregard forest roads as a way to bring your plan together. Generally, road walks don't make the best hiking, so decide if you want to get a road segment over with fresh, or just enjoy the relative flatness of a road at the end, when you'll probably need a break.

Got your loop?

After you've done all that work, the only thing left to do is to go hike your loop! And then of course share it with the community in a trip report.